Is the quest for engagement a red herring?

With due apologies for a possible click bait title, I worry that the quest for engaging content is becoming a problem. It may have been a problem for some time and I am slow on the uptake. That has happened before.

There is a risk here that opposing the creation of engaging experiences is, inevitably, seen as opposition to a self-evident good. Engaging experiences are good experiences, don’t you want things to be good? To qualify my perspective a little, I am thinking mostly of corporate or organisation based experiences – the role for entertainment in consumer markets is as clear as day. In the world of work, less so.

My worry is that engagement is too broad a goal to be instructive in deciding what to make. Equally, ‘making good things’ is not a discerning strategic goal. We need to know why something is engaging – what it is good for – and focus on that. Seeking engagement can allow us to pretty much justify any goal but does not guarantee an impact that will make a difference.

The real problem with the quest for engagement is that it excuses the creation of content in which there is little or no interest from the audience. Too often engagement equates to sugaring the pill or placing lipstick on pigs (to say nothing of polishing poop). There is little audience demand or pull, so the push is lubricated with the application of ‘fun’.

Focus on what is interesting and useful.

Back in the earlier days of Twitter (when it was a more temperate and calmer place to bathe) there was much debate about whether there was value in sharing and reading snippets of information within a 140 character limit. Not much of any worth can be captured in these bursts ran the argument. I was a fan of Twitter and seeking justifications of my behaviour. I was struck by Graham Linehan’s argument for using the service and as a guide for who to follow: I focus on what is interesting and useful. (It was a while ago, so I am paraphrasing).

Back in those earlier days, I was working in the search engine industry. (Believe it or not, there was a period when the sector was competitive, before Google swallowed the world). The purpose of the products in the sector is to provide the most relevant response to a users query. Relevance in search is everything. That relevance is personal and is decided by the author of the query not the search engine. A good and abiding definition of personal relevance is what the user finds most interesting and/or useful. Fifteen or so years later, I belive these are the most valuable goals of content creation and of user experience: make it as useful and interesting as possible. The chances of audience appreciation will rise and you might earn the right to do more.

Find things out and get things done

This is why the, perennially excellent, Top 100 Tools For Learning is so instructive. The tools listed there not the tools of fun and entertainment but of productivity, connection and communication. They help us find things out and get things done. Netflix and Xbox, for example, are not on the list. Google search is in the top three ,with that relentless focus on personal relevance.

There is nothing inherently wrong with playfulness. It can be a very important editorial value in the stories you tell. It can signal humanity and empathy. A playful tone might support the usefulness of your products or content. Snapchat worked that out but have not let it get in the way of the utility of their service. It is a playful experience but does not try to be a game.

David James has ridden this hobby-horse to a great destination a few times. The right questions to ask before we make are along the lines of “What problem are we trying to solve?”. “What use or interest is there here for a user”? Certainly, this might be a less exotic palette of flavours but they are satisfying and when done well, they are returned to often. Frequency of use is a great metric to test how helpful content and services are for users. The closer to once a day you can get the better. So often the ‘fun’ is added to help “drive engagement” for experiences that are low down the priority order for users or are the products of compulsion. Make these short and simple, don’t worry about fun.

The, hopefully historic, proposal of a ‘Netflix for learning’ falls at this hurdle. If it was a good idea, Netflix would have created a learning category amongst its giddying array of options. They haven’t. (A YouTube for learning is a much better idea, which is why there is one. YouTube). Netflix works because it is well designed around our desire to be entertained. How about a Netflix for Internal Comms or Policy Documents? No. Me neither.

I propose that we halt the quest for engagement and focus our energy and imagination  on the search for personal relevance. By personal relevance, I mean experiences that are interesting and useful to the individuals using them.


  1. Interesting article. As a marketer, I have a slightly different view on this; I think the quest for engagement is ESSENTIAL. Yes, creating content that has personal relevance is the Holy Grail and should always be, without question, the first consideration. But, once you’ve created that content, the problem then becomes – how do you help people ‘engage’ with it? No matter how personally relevant something is, if it’s badly presented then you’re unlikely to get along with it. I once found a webpage on a subject that was incredibly relevant to a project I was working on. The information was gold-dust; useful and interesting. But it was poorly-written, dense, impenetrable and laden with spelling errors. The Flesch–Kincaid index was off the scale. To make matters worse, the webpage was rendered with bright white text on a black background making it tiresome to read. I gave up after half a page and continued my search. If that webpage had used a video or infographic or interactive game, I may well have fared better. Your point about “sugaring the pill” of less-than-interesting content to encourage engagement is well made. In fairness, it’s a natural reaction to the surfeit of content competing for our attention, so content creators feel under pressure to make their stuff sexy, or face digital tumbleweed. Remember when we were told that video was the next big thing? So everyone started doing it. Now, you can’t move for videos on Linkedin, Facebook and Instagram and we’ve ended up in a commoditization nightmare where everything looks the same. In a sea of sameness, how do you make your content stand out? How do you get people to ENGAGE? That’s where creativity comes in and that’s why I think the quest (such as it is) shouldn’t be de-prioritised. So, yes, first and foremost, we must put our audience’s needs ahead of our own – as you say, focus on personal relevance. But secondly, the content must encourage the consumer to consume it.

    • Thanks for the comment Giles (for taking the time to engage). There is certainly value in the marketing definitions of egagement: sparking interest, intruige, awareness etc. Without these considerations around content, a busy audience might pass by. As you say, the pay off is in the content itself. What measures, as a marketer, do you focus on in working towards that kind of egagement?

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